In 2008, I was diagnosed with DCIS, stage 0 breast cancer. I was 44 at the time and it was scary learning of my diagnosis, but I was also relieved and felt very fortunate that it was early-stage breast cancer. I do have a strong family history of cancer in my family, with my dad passing away from small bowel cancer, my paternal grandmother passing away from ovarian cancer and my paternal aunt passing away from breast cancer. Also, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 60. After receiving my diagnosis, my choice of treatment was lumpectomy and radiation. During my initial consultation with a radiologist/oncologist, my doctor began questioning me on my family history of cancer. I shared my history and he suggested genetic testing for BRCA1/BRCA2, at the time, because of the strong presence of cancer on my Dad’s side of the family. To be honest, I thought that was just a crazy idea, thinking how could a cancer diagnosis of this type be passed along to me from my Dad’s side of the family.
At the time, our area (Scranton, PA) did not offer any type of genetic testing and to be honest, it wasn’t something that I ever heard of. I chose to do my testing in the Philadelphia area where a genetic counselor explained how having a strong family history or mutation, may put me at a higher risk of certain cancers. Finding out I was BRCA1 positive confirmed the decisions I made to have a bilateral mastectomy/reconstruction and oophorectomy. A whirlwind of doctor appointments and surgeries occurred that year. When I was finally finished, I felt that I needed some type of support from other women who have a genetic mutation and chose to make life-changing surgical choices based on being BRCA1/BRCA2 positive.
I began googling and finally I found FORCE! After spending hours reading information on the FORCE website, it was comforting to know there are people out there that understand what I’ve gone through. I attended the closest FORCE support meeting to me in Philadelphia on a Sunday afternoon. My husband came with me for the 2-hour ride and patiently walked the Whole Foods aisles while I met with other women just like me. It was at this meeting that I met Sandy and Diane. I will never forget that meeting. I felt so welcomed and felt such a connection with both of them and the other women I met that day!
During my next oncologist appointment, I shared my excitement about attending my first FORCE meeting. My oncologist at the time suggested I start a local group for our Scranton area. Knowing how I felt so alone with having the BRCA1 mutation and looking for support, I formed our local FORCE group hoping to provide support to others and educate our community on hereditary cancers.
From my experience with attending my first FORCE meeting and feeling a connection where I knew I would find the support I so much needed, I know how important and life-changing our meetings can be. Our Scranton group was fortunate to have Cassie Kobeski join us in 2014 as a co-State Impact Leader. Together we hold meetings with up to ten people attending. I am always in awe when I see one of our members reach out to another who is going through a similar situation to their own. This has happened at so many of our meetings. We have even formed friendships that go beyond our meetings, where we have done other fun things that don’t involve talking about our health issues. But knowing that we have our group to provide support and resources to our members makes being a State Impact Leader so fulfilling. I always hope a new member leaves their first Scranton FORCE meeting with the same feelings I had when I attended my first Philadelphia FORCE meeting way back in 2008!
At the age of 33, I experienced an emotional and physical whirlwind within a matter of two months. I had what would be my first and my last mammogram after receiving my BRCA 1 positive results. Soon after, I received my shocking breast cancer diagnosis and scheduled surgery for a few weeks later.
Growing up, I knew I would be at high risk. My mother, grandmother and two aunts were all breast cancer survivors. Yet, I hoped and I prayed that I may have a different story or, at the very least, have more time on my side before this tale became my own.
Before I underwent my bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction, my cousin recommended I look for a local FORCE group. My cousin lived in a larger Metropolitan area so I was doubtful that my small town would offer this support. I was going through a preventative round of IVF or fertility preservation before beginning chemotherapy, and I certainly was not in the best of spirits. However, I was pleasantly surprised to not only find FORCE, but also a wonderful and compassionate friend in Maria Serra. Maria offered her knowledge and welcomed me openly to her FORCE group.
In 2014, less than a year after meeting Maria, I volunteered to become her co-State Impact Leader. As part of my own healing process and as a coping mechanism, I love connecting with and supporting other families dealing with hereditary cancer. It has helped to regain a sense of control that cancer had taken from me. Through the tears and laughter, our small Scranton, PA FORCE group is a blessing. The women in our group are survivors and previvors and each one holds a special place in my heart. My cancer diagnosis was seven years ago this March 27th and I am so grateful that I can be the glimmer of light and hope for others facing the same challenges of hereditary cancers.